In this week’s column, Phil Moeller, the author of Get What’s Yours for Medicare: Maximize Your Coverage, Minimize Your Costs and co-author of the updated edition of How to Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security, addresses a reader’s question about recouping Social Security benefits that have been withheld.

Got a question of your own about Medicare or Social Security? Send it to

Now that I’ve turned 66, how do I reclaim Social Security survivor benefits that were withheld?

Question: A few years ago, you answered questions for me regarding taking Social Security survivor benefits. My husband passed away almost five years ago, and I started taking survivor benefits at age 61. Since I also worked full time up until this year, Social Security withheld almost 50 percent of my benefits through the beginning of this year.

I recently turned full retirement age of 66. Will Social Security pay me the money they’ve withheld for the past four years?

Do I have to get in touch with them, or will they automatically contact me?

How are the withheld funds paid? Is it a monthly benefit increase or a lump sum? And if it’s a monthly increase, how do they calculate it?

I’ve tried calling Social Security but was on hold for almost an hour and gave up. Any information you can give me would be greatly appreciated! Thank you.


Answer: Those reductions have been caused by Social Security’s earnings test rules. However, once you reached your full retirement age, any benefits withheld due to the earnings test should begin to be repaid to you in the form of higher benefits.

This should be an automatic adjustment, and it should be explained to you in a letter you receive from Social Security. It will include the amount of your higher benefit.

I do not know the precise details of how the agency’s calculates the “payback” period for these withheld benefits. I assume the agency would determine the average remaining lifespan of a woman your age and calculate the higher benefits so that you were repaid all of your withheld benefits by the time you reached that age. If you live longer than this, you would continue to receive the higher benefit and it would last for the rest of your life.

The restoration of withheld benefits only applies to the type of benefit you were receiving at the time your earnings test reductions were applied. In your case, that was a survivor benefit. If you switched from that survivor benefit to your own retirement benefit at a later date—which is permissible under Social Security rules—that second benefit would not be adjusted upward due to earnings test reductions. 

Of course, you wouldn’t be switching unless the retirement benefit already was higher than your adjusted survivor benefit. But you shouldn’t expect a further boost in that benefit because of earnings test adjustments.

Enjoy your increased benefits!